Essay Sellers

We regularly ask Brevity authors if they would write a short blog post on the genesis of the essay just published.  Today, Heather Sellers tells us how she came to write “In Graves with My Student Elizabeth:”

The roots of this piece are from a poetry assignment—a kind of marathon writing run I do each year with a friend.  For Lent, instead of giving something up, I like to give something out.  Each year for Lent I write a poem a day for the forty days. It’s intense and wonderful and demanding and incredibly fun. My writing partner send the poems to each other via e-mail by 11 AM.  And we write back quick comments—just saying what we loved. On the fly. What’s wonderful about Poetry Lent is you walk around looking, hungrily, for anything you can use as fodder because the next poem is already demanding your attention. And you wake up with a poem in your heart, on your lips. It’s a luscious position in which to be. (Option: you can do a twenty day mini-lent, or a seven-day “cleanse.”)  If, at the end of Lent I end up with one “keeper,” I’m thrilled.  The assignment is more about the process of paying attention than it is about product development.

So, I was writing a poem each day for forty days and the morning after the interaction with Liz I began writing about what had happened. I described the gift of this student’s tears, the grace of her profound sadness, a sadness which circled me and held me and somehow brought me into closer touch with the griefs around my parents’ endings. As I wrote and revised, I noticed how much teaching is based on listening, and being present, being with. I began writing on Friday morning, and the campus was closed and the town was empty because it was Spring Break. In the quiet and space allowed by those wide windy days, in the dead quiet, the poem grew, changed shape, shifted its center, and by the end of the week, it had become this short essay.  Form follows vacation. 

The parts were all there—the assignment and deadline and reader waiting are for me an essential part of the writing process; the exquisite overlap of the student feeling and saying the very things in my own heart; and, crucially, the empty “dead” campus, a feeling it was just the two of us left living, trapped and held by that great old stone mausoleum-temple, Graves Hall.

This piece was originally titled “Us in Graves” until a reader pointed out that the title could be misread as the United States in Graves. The new title still gives the effect of us being buried by grief, I think.

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Tagged:author_commentary, Heather Sellers, Poetry Lent, Writers Resources

It used to be very simple to figure out what a “best-seller” meant. Back in the olden days, before all this new-fangled technology shit, we had this thing called The New York Times Bestseller List. This was a respected newspaper and its reporting of the top 50 books in the fiction/non-fiction categories was something I looked forward to every Sunday. Why? I wanted to know how my favorite authors’ new books were doing. Sometimes I was looking for something new to read. And I have to admit I dreamed one of my own books might make that list some day.

That, however, was a LONG time ago. See, what happened is I became educated. The NYT list is bullshit. Absolute bullshit. The game is rigged. Has been all along. NYT doesn’t get reports from all bookstores all over the USA. No, they only get a partial number from those stores that use “bookscan.” And even then, I think the numbers are seriously flawed. There’s also the “expected sales.” What? What the fuck does that even mean? In addition, NYT rolled pre-orders into this list too. How the hell does that even make sense?

Don’t get me wrong, the NYT is still the “most-respected” of all the top book charts out there. Or is it? Well, it’s the most respected by the big-five publishers, certainly. The rest of us? I’m not so sure anymore.

This issue has raised its ugly head due to a recent trend we authors have witnessed. And it’s all Amazon’s fault.

Authors and publisher have to market their wares. They must, or they sell nothing and go out of business. Or simply fade into the background. So-called “self-published” authors (not indies who actually practice real business acumen) are notorious for hyping their “best-selling” works. How does this happen? Simple. Amazon is a BIG store. It’s also all digital. Authors can place their stories in very fine-grained genres. For instance, my BEST-SELLING novel The Black, is placed in the genre “Deep Sea Stories” as well as “Horror.”

If you go look at the ridiculously focused genre of “Deep Sea Stories,” you’ll note that my book is in very good company. Authors like Clive Cussler, Ernest Hemingway,  and Herman Melville are in the top 20 of that list. Given that Papa Hemingway and Melville are long dead and their books are classics, I expect they’ll be headliners on that list until the end of Amazon. As of right now, The Black is #6 on this “Best-Seller” list. Whoopty fucking do.

An author who is less than scrupulous might use this as their claim that their book is a best-seller. Technically, since it made that list, it is. But come on, folks. This is bullshit. How many books in the bookstore or Amazon’s ridiculously huge catalog actually fit into this little category? I’ve no clue. But if you compared it to the genre of Science Fiction, this little category wouldn’t show up as a blip in the number of books. So what the hell does this shit even mean?

Now, let’s take a step back and get less specific about sub-genres. I’ll use The Black again as an example. Mainly to feed my narcissism but also to back up my point later on. The other list that it owned for weeks is the “Kindle eBooks->Literature & Fiction -> Horror” list. Surely this is a MUCH larger category than say “Sea Stories” which is akin to “Underwater Basketweaving.” Well, frankly, yes it is.

The number of horror books out there is mind-boggling. And yet, again, it pales in comparison to Sci-fi, Fantasy, Thriller, Mystery, and etc.

If the NYT is rigged and a bullshit list, and if Amazon’s metrics are also bullshit, what the hell is a best-seller? Let’s revisit Amazon for a moment. If you look at Amazon’s lists for the top-level genres (such as SF, Fantasy, Thriller, Mystery, Horror, etc), you’ll see a wide variety of books there by a wide variety of authors. Usually these lists consist of well-known authors, but they can also be heavily influenced by a book that is marketed well, or happens to have a price slash.

Case in point: The Black. When the novel was first released, it struggled between the 10k and 20k rankings on Amazon. Now keep in mind, that’s out of all the eBooks Amazon sells. In other words, it’s quite a feat.

But what happened two weeks later was insane. The Black, priced at $3.99, made it to #2 on all the horror charts and stayed there for over a week. It’s ranking improved from 15k all the way down to the 700s. But was it a best-seller? Can I call myself an Amazon Horror Best-Selling Author?

Wait, there’s more. My publisher, Severed Press, managed to get the book into Bookbub. For those who don’t know what Bookbub is, it’s essentially a mailing list where readers who want deals on books sign up and then get pummeled with book deals. They are a hungry readership and like their 99¢ eBook discounts. The Black was on sale at 99¢ for just a week. And before the Bookbub promotion even started, the book charted well.

The same day the promotion came out? Holy crap. The Black was number one in kindle horror, book horror, and made it to 161 out of the entire kindle store. 161. For 17 hours, my little techno-thriller monster novel beat Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Clive Barker…everyone. On the horror list, of course, but still. That’s a pretty major accomplishment, right?

Weeks later, the book has just now dropped between the 3k and 4k rankings on the kindle store. It’s still in the top 100 horror eBooks, although it bounces hourly in and out of the list.

So again, can I call myself an “Amazon Horror Best-Selling Author?”

It’d be great for marketing. Hell, it would be awesome to put on book covers, in email campaigns, in my biography, the audiobook, the podcast… I could even sell shirts.

So here’s the deal. Perhaps this will sound a bit hypocritical, but yeah, I think I CAN call myself a best-selling author. The book was a best-seller in October when it was at its regular price. That wasn’t some kind of bait and switch bullshit. It’s just a fact.

When Severed Press ran the 99¢ deal, you can argue its sales were only driven by the price. And guess what? You’d probably be right.

But I’ve charted in the top 10 horror PAID eBooks TWICE for more than a week each time. The book wasn’t given away for free. The book wasn’t part of some package deal. It was just…the book.

By comparison, I’ve been number 1 in the tiny, ridiculously focused genre of “Sea Stories” more times than I can count. But who gives a shit? Those readers, arguably, were my bread and butter. And they are and I’m damned glad to have them. But a genre that small brings folks in, but doesn’t mean much in the large scheme of things. It’s a niche audience and frankly I’m used to that. Niche audiences have kept me writing, podcasting, and nominated for awards.

But guess what? I’d never refer to myself as Amazon best-seller if my book only charted in Sea Stories. It’s ridiculous. It’s disingenuous. And it just furthers the notion that anyone, any author out there, can write something that can chart. If we’re all best-sellers, then the term means absolutely nothing.

There are writers out there, like Matt Wallace, who bust their ass and create excellent tales. To my knowledge, Mr. Wallace has yet to chart where he deserves. Which is a shame. I think his skills as a writer eclipse my own. But through lack of marketing, or maybe just subject matter, he, like Joe R Lansdale, remains a closely held literary secret.

I wrote a pretty good book. It was with the right publisher who flawlessly performed their marketing, ensure it had a great cover, and was positioned well. It was also timed perfectly to show up in folks’ halloween lists for horror books. In other words, I got damned lucky, and I know it. The novel still has a 4 star rating, despite its foibles and shortcomings. It’s an outcome I hadn’t expected possible.

Do I hope to top the Amazon horror chart again? Absolutely. Why? Because that means I’m selling books like crazy. NYT List? Not so much. Making NYT doesn’t necessarily mean a damned thing for actual sales. At least with Amazon, it means I’m making money. And that’s money that goes toward me writing full time.

So roll your eyes when I market myself as Amazon Horror Best-Selling author. I’ll roll my eyes when someone touts themselves as a Best-Selling Sea Story author. I’ll roll them even harder when they chart in the “free ebook” lists. My little book is not the best out there and I’m hardly the best writer in the game. But something clicked in the market. And I’m going to chase it while it’s working. But regardless of the high rankings, I know I have more work to do. I have to be a better writer, marketer, and business person if I’m going to realize my dreams. And this is just a first step.


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